Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Two nights, a day and a half in Paris

The street in Montmartre on which my hotel was so centrally situated
I find that Paris has left me speechless and struggling for words. My time there was too short, so I do plan to return some day. Paris is like no other place I have been. From my brief time there, I would say Paris is about beauty and a love of beauty. I'm sure Paris has an underbelly, and of course, its history is full of revolution and schemes, but the dominant impression it left on me was one of amazement and harmony.

As soon as I left the Gare du Nord, after arriving via the Eurostar from London at shortly after 6 p.m. on a Monday evening, I began walking north on Rue de Dunkerque and was struck immediately by the beauty of the old buildings with their wrought iron terraces. Many of the wooden shuttered windows were flung open as the weather was pleasantly warm. The sidewalks were narrow and people already filled tiny tables facing the noisy street. Motorbikes were everywhere, whizzing past or filling up the curbsides. People greeted each other. The energy was involving, inclusive, dizzying -- magnifique.

My hotel was in the centre of the old Montmartre district, about a twenty-minute walk from the station. There were cafes every other building, interspersed with open-doored specialty food shops selling meats, cheeses, chocolates, pastries, seafood. The narrow, cobblestones roads weaved uphill and down, bisecting and trisecting each other, yet all clearly marked.

I found my hotel. I didn't know what to expect as online the descriptions left by people were fairly polarized. As long as it was clean, I didn't really care about the five flights of stairs. It was cheap and in a fantastic location. When the proprietor began speaking to me in fluent French I realized how poor my language skills were. He slowed down. He also spoke some English. He explained to me that the first night I would be on the fifth floor and the second night I would be on the first floor. At first this irked me, but after climbing the circular stairwell, even with only my small nightbag, I realized that this change would be a good thing.

My room was small but perfectly fine, with a firm bed, good sheets, a desk and chair and a sink with a towel and soap. I had a window, with no screen, that opened onto an enclosed well of internal walls, with the sky above covered with a net to keep out any vermin and flying objects. The cleanliness impressed me. I work in an international hotel as a room attendant, so it is an occupational hazard I suppose, carrying my work with me as a guest. There was not a hint of dirt, even in the window casings.

Evening darkness arrived as I did, and after dropping off my bags, I went back into the streets of Montmartre to get my bearings. I never felt unsafe -- the streets were bristling. Parisians eat late and many of the cafes and restaurants don't open for dinner until 7 or 8 p.m. I was intimidated, as a potential lone diner, by the intimacy of the tiny, circular tables so close to each other on the sidewalks. I stopped at an open air fruit and vegetable shop and remembered my Lonely Planet guide instructions not to touch the merchandise -- a hard habit to break. I thought the price of fruit high, the price of meat not so high, the price of cheese and chocolates welcoming.

My little Lonely Planet book was full of invaluable guidance. Because, as it says, Paris is made up of mostly single, often cramped, households, the people commune in the streets and cafes. Because of this also, I discovered that though much of Paris is fodder for tourists and some tourist traps, not everything is disproportionately priced because the locals live in the same Paris. So, next to restaurants catering pizza and American food to the visitors are shops where working people stop in at the end of the day and buy a takeaway. But this is Paris, so the takeaway shops are full of fresh baquettes, impressive arrays of quiches and patisseries, for a good price. I stopped in one, waited as the proprietor chatted genially with a regular customer getting a baquette filled with thinly sliced reams of ham, and then pointed to a huge slice of salmon quiche, as by this time, tired and overwhelmed, my little bit of French was leaving me tonguetied.

I happily exited the shop with my wrapped dinner in my hand, looking for a bench in a well-lit spot so I could enjoy eating in the midst of people enjoying food and each other's company. Only a block away, I was mistaken for a local by a delivery man looking for directions! It was the only time during my short stay that I didn't have a map in my hand. 'Je visite,' I said, stunned. He immediately found someone who was a local and was able to help him.

I found my bench in the Places des Abbesses and enjoyed my quiche in the open air.

The next morning I awoke in my room with a headache brought on by the previous day's travelling and overexcitement and a rough night's sleep due to the flushing toilets in the hotel, which sounded with the fury of Niagara Falls down the circular stairwell. When I booked, I had not expected an included breakfast, so the fact that the hotel supplied one was a very welcome surprise. Most of the other guests in the hotel were of a similar age and economic background, all a little stunned and sleep deprived because of the thinness of the rooms' walls. But the proprietor's wife was genteel and warmly efficient as she served each of us a hearty croissant, a roll of bread with butter and jams, an orange juice and one of the best coffees I have had in a very, very long time. It must have been perked. It reminded me of the coffee my mother used to make and it washed away the headache and set me on my way to discover Paris in a day.

The plan was to meander through Montmartre, to see -- just around the corner -- a house owned by Theo Van Gogh where Vincent had lived with him for three years, and then to Lapin Agile, on my way to the Basilique du Sacre Coeur perched on Montmartre's heights, before walking downhill to the Seine and the famed sights of the Louvre, Notre Dame, and of course, le Tour Eiffel.
Les Abbesses Metro station, one of the remaining 1900 art nouveau entrances

Misty morning in Montmartre

Rue de l'Aubrevoir in Montmartre -- a beautiful street

Lapin Agile

Clos Montmartre -- a vineyard across the street from Lapin Agile

Le Clos Montmartre

La Basilique du Sacre Coeur

Le Place du Tetre screams 'made for tourists',
but still charming, near Sacre Coeur

A drinking fountain next to Sacre Coeur
It was almost noon when I sat on a bench at the top of Montmartre and planned my descent to the Seine. I fortified myself with some oat crackers, apples and water I had brought with me from the UK the day before. I tried to find a relatively direct route and chose Rue des Martyrs leading to Rue du Faubourg Montmartre, which would bring me close to the Louvre, in probably about an hour, and which streets I remembered Lonely Planet recommending for food shops.

And the shops were indeed there, mouth-watering and tempting. It was lunch hour and the Parisians were beginning to hit the cafes, empty tables set with wine and water glasses, waiting for them. When I reached the back of the Louvre, I stopped quickly without thinking to take a tourist photo, and turned to see a male Parisian businessman giving me an earned disdainful look as I blocked his way to the Metro.

The Louvre is closed on Tuesdays, which was fine with me as I was in Paris too short of a time to do museums properly. Even then I had bought beforehand a ticket to visit the Impressionist gallery Musee D'Orsay. I was thinking that this was probably too much to do, especially as the foggy morning had dissipated into a lovely, sunny day.

My plan was to take the Batobus, a hop-on, hop-off ferry on the Seine which stopped at all the major destinations and provided a cruise at the same time. I was exhausted and hungry and ready to do nothing but sit and see Paris from the river. It took me a while and a few enquiries to find a Batobus station, but when I did I settled in for an almost complete one-and-a-half hour cruise to the Musee D'Orsay.

The Batobus is enclosed, which was a real disappointment, as most of the other boats on the Seine are open, though I suppose they must do this or people would never get off of it. The plexiglass, with the sun shining through it, was not the best way to see or take photos. But, with a change of seats, the views were impressive and I devoured a peanut-butter and banana sandwich that I still happened to have, while watching Paris unfold before me.

Riding up and down the Seine is the best way to see the glories of Paris. My first view of the Eiffel Tower was from the water and I was amazed at how delicate and how much like lace the iron looked. After a thoroughly relaxing and reenergizing cruise I got off at the Musee D'Orsay, of two minds on whether I wanted to spend time indoors on such a lovely day. There were police and military everywhere and no sign of the infamous lines I had bought the advance ticket to avoid. Then I saw the banners and crowds and realized there was a political rally of some kind going on. Paris is famous for this! I walked through the flagwaving crowds to the entrance and on the door in front of me and other incredulous tourists and patrons, was a white piece of paper saying the museum was closed and being struck by the city workers rallying in the attached square.

I was a little miffed, as I was out 10 euros with no compensation in sight, and it was the only ticket I had bought in advance. But, I was also relieved, because I knew I couldn't have done the museum and Paris both justice in one afternoon.

So, I headed to the Eiffel Tower, planning to take the Batobus afterwards back to the Louvre for my walk back to Montmartre. I got a little lost going to the Tower because it disappeared from view for awhile and I wasn't following my map, just streets that I thought were going towards it. In the process I happened upon the Rue Cler, another street well-known for its food shops -- the glories of getting lost in Paris.

With the sun setting as I returned to Montmartre up Rue de la Paix, I passed Napoleon's Vendome Column and in Place Vendome all the high-priced retail real estate. Outside Tiffany's Paris, at 6 in the evening, the doors were being opened for a large, smiling group of Asian men. Customers or owners?

The back of the Louvre -- the Louvre Palace

The Louvre Museum

The hop-on, hop-off Batobus

Strikers closed down the Musee D'Orsay

The enchanting Tour Eiffel

Napoleon's Vendome Column
The Palais Garnier, famed opera house

Exhausted and starving, I dropped my bags back into my new room on the first floor of my hotel (so glad I didn't have to walk up five flights) and headed off to choose a cafe for my Parisian feast. If I'd had another day in Paris I probably would have felt comfortable eating solo outdoors, but I was too tired to try anything more adventurous.

It was 8 p.m. before I settled on the cafe directly opposite my hotel, the Cafe Burq, and it was a good choice. I ordered the three-course meal, with some scrutiny understanding most of what I was ordering: an artichoke appetiser, strips of duck for the main course, and a cheese plate for dessert, with a glass of red house wine. It was empty at 8 p.m. when it opened but diners came in as I ate and most of them were Parisians: a family with two teens, who began playing cards as they awaited their dinner, a bilingual couple with an American guest, two Parisian gentlemen. Faultless and sublimely good. I realized I hadn't had balsamic vinegar since I've been to the UK and it's on my grocery list now.

The toilets didn't cascade as loudly on the first floor of my hotel as they did from the fifth, and I was so tired it wouldn't have mattered if they had. My time in Paris was ending too soon. Another excellent cup of coffee with my breakfast in the morning and I was off to take a walk through Montmartre Cemetery before catching the Eurostar back to London shortly after noon.

Le Cemetiere Montmartre, the final resting place of famous and non-famous Parisians, was the first above-ground cemetery I have visited. I don't know if this is the reason I disliked it. I have never had a problem visiting cemeteries before, and generally find them restful, peaceful places. This cemetery is picturesque enough, but I forced myself to go through it. For some reason, beyond reason, I just wanted to get out of it as soon as I entered.

I didn't want my last memories of Paris to be dark ones, so when I re-entered the streets of Montmartre I had chocolate on my mind -- a darkness of a different kind. Two liquor-filled cherry bonbons later and the cemetery was out of mind. Determined to keep Paris with me awhile longer, I stopped at an open air baquette shop and picked up a lovely-looking sandwich for lunch on the train. More balsamic vinegar -- and the taste still lingers!

The Cafe des 2 Moulins in Montmartre, featured in the film Amelie

Cats at the Cemetiere Montmartre

Sales on a street in Paris

Paris is the most visited city in the world for good reason.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

the city of light

  1. La Tour Eiffel -- the Eiffel Tower
  2. Une patisserie -- ummm, sublime
  3. La Basilique du Sacre Coeur -- the Basilica of the Sacred Heart
  4. The steps of Sacre Coeur Basilica
  5. A door of the Louvre Palace, housing The Louvre Museum
  6. L'Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel (a smaller Arc de Triomphe) in front of The Pyramid and the Louvre
  7. Le Jardin des Tuilieries, with views of Le Place de la Concorde and L'Arc de Triomphe
  8. Le Pont d'Alexandre III (bridge) in front of Le Grand Palais, both built as part of preparations for the Universal Exposition of 1900
  9. Love locks covering one of the bridges over the Seine -- lovers throw the key into the river
  10. La Cathedrale Notre-Dame de Paris -- Our Lady of Paris -- from the Seine
  11. A gravestone in Le Cimetiere de Montmartre
  12. Rue de l'Aubrevoir, Montmartre -- the most beautiful street
  13. The Seine
  14. On the Left Bank of the Seine

Saturday, November 3, 2012

the porthcawl crawl

Elvis --and friends -- Live! in Porthcawl

On the Saturday of the last weekend in September, the day I received the phone call about my Paris trip being cancelled, I was in the midst of a wonderful day bus-hopping to festivals in nearby towns.

It was the first time I had used the day-long bus pass available in different regions of Wales, which allows you to get on and off buses and spend time in different towns. For only a bit more than £6 I travelled to and from Bridgend for the 'alternative' food Feastival there and on to seaside Porthcawl for the truly rockin' Elvis Festival.

It was a wonderful day. The sun shone, the bus rode through beautiful Welsh countryside, and a party atmosphere prevailed on the ride back from Porthcawl. The Elvis Festival begs you to become a part of it, to don silly clothes and rock, rock, rock! One of the most joyous town parties I have ever seen, with shades of Grand Bend, Ontario in its heyday.

Kids entranced with Punch and Judy at Bridgend's Feastival

Only in Wales -- a leek toss, or as it was called at the Feastival -- a leek lopping

By the sea at Porthcawl

Elvis' and entourages in front of the Grand Pavilion

The South survives

More sightings of The King

Monday, October 8, 2012

Countdown to Paris

First off, I want to wish everyone a happy, happy Canadian Thanksgiving!!! I had a chat with most of the family last night as they gathered for turkey and the trimmings at my niece Kate's place in Windsor, Ontario. I miss Thanksgiving and all that it stands for and believe Europe and the U.K. would do well to adopt this celebration. I am sad that, except for perhaps Octoberfest in Germany, I am not aware of any longstanding similar celebrations over here -- and Octoberfest seems to be more of a beer fest than a gratitude for the blessings in our lives.

On that note, after my group coach trip to Paris, set to leave October 19, was unexpectedly cancelled last weekend, sending me into an emotional tailspin, I am glad to report that I have been able to put together something at the last minute and that Paris is on the horizon.

After the cancellation, I was determined to spend time in Amsterdam or Paris and not waste my holiday sitting at home, but of course found that with my days off only weeks away, both cities were fully booked and if there were availabilities they were not in my cost range. But, after four straight afternoons online at the library, I have been able to sort out a plan and am now booked for two nights and a day and a bit in Paris!

I had to change my plan from the weekend to the Monday through Wednesday, but that was no big deal. I was looking forward to the coach trip because I would be travelling with and meeting new people, but I was not looking forward to what would probably be two interminably long bus rides. I'll be travelling on my own now, which doesn't prohibit meeting people, and I'm sure the coach time is cut to a quarter. I've also learned a lot about some of the options available out there.

So, on Monday, October 22 I will be catching a very cheap Megabus from Cardiff to London where I will then take the Eurostar train to Paris, arriving in the belle ville early evening. I have booked a single room at a hostel not far from the Eurostar station in the Paris neighbourhood of Montmartre. I know shockingly little of Paris, except for the standard tourist destinations of the Eiffel Tower, the Seine, the Louvre and Notre Dame. I will have all day Tuesday to explore the city and will be praying it doesn't rain!

Montmartre seems to be a good choice, being an old part of Paris and the site of the Moulin Rouge (home of the cancan), the Sacre Coeur Cathedral, and the famous cemetery where so many illustrious people have their last earthly resting place. Now, I just need to scour the charity stores for used travel books on Paris and a handy French-English dictionary.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

the paralympics

Tomorrow night the London 2012 Paralympics close. I will miss them. More than the Olympics.

The Paralympics and Paralympians are more accessible than the elitism of the 'boring' Games as The Last Leg's Adam Hills called the Olympics. Everyone has limitations in some way and watching people with obvious, or not-so-obvious, limitations push themselves and excel beyond expectation is memorable and inspirational. It makes going to work with that sore shoulder or bad head more achievable.

I, with other Canadians, became aware of the Paralympics when the amazing achievements of Chantal Petitclerc were broadcast on the CBC, though not until she had already been competing for years. (I just found out she is coaching for the Brits these Games.) Media coverage has been the key to people finding out about Paralympians and their dedication. Media coverage and these Games will advance the perception of the 'disabled' in a profound way.

Besides the athletes and coaches, I have also been very impressed with the great care taken in establishing so many categories of competition, going to great lengths to equalize playing fields, in what is often, science aside, a subjective measurement.

And nods of respect to the Brits, who have presented these Paralympics with great style and equanimity and never taken the honours due them for being the first home of the Paralympics. I would say, that even now, at the end of these Games, very few people realize the Paralympic movement began in England at a hospital for war veterans. A fine drama, The Best of Men, presented on TV between the Olympics and Paralympics, told the remarkable story of German refugee Dr. Ludwig Guttmann and his work with disabled war veterans at Stoke Mandeville hospital, but it was subtly downplayed for no apparent reason.

I will especially miss, and here you can hear an audible moan, the nightly hijinks of Adam Hills' The Last Leg, an end-of-night politically incorrect (and correct) roundup of the days events, which takes so many of those questions we all have about previously taboo subjects and, with laughter, dissolves the taboos. No wonder the Paralympians (American wheelchair rugby team in particular) break their curfews to watch it. So funny, and I am sad to see it come to an end.

Shine on, Paralympics!

Friday, September 7, 2012

summer wanderings

Olympic viewing in the Hayes, Cardiff city centre

Rail trip to Llanwrtyd Wells -- too late for the Games events though

Kite statue, Llanwrtyd Wells

Part of the Heart of Wales train loop

Alexandra Gardens in Cardiff on a lovely summer day in August

Paralympic insignia in front of Cardiff City Hall

Walk alongside Boulevard de Nantes

Nereid, daughter of Greek seagod, dancing with fish and birds

A balancing act

The Great Western pub in Cardiff City Centre

Working hands

The British Fish Craft Championships at Cardiff's Harbour Festival -- last weekend in August

Fish fight

X-treme Sailing in Cardiff Bay during Harbour Festival